Spectacular Disappearances: Celebrity and Privacy, 1696–1801 by Julia H. Fawcett (review)
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Spectacular Disappearances: Celebrity and Privacy, 1696–1801 by Julia H. Fawcett
Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2016.
xii+280pp. US$52.95. ISBN 978-0-472-11980-6.

Colley Cibber (1671–1757) figures prominently on the cover as well as within the contents of this book. As a well-known actor, play-wright, theatrical manager, autobiographer, and poet laureate, Cibber was undeniably a key figure in the literary world of early eighteenth-century England. Julia H. Fawcett argues that Cibber is also crucial for understanding how fame was experienced and negotiated by eighteenth-century celebrities. As a stage actor, Cibber became habituated to presenting his body and his persona before audiences on a regular basis, and he used this skill to develop a strategy of public self-fashioning that Fawcett calls “over-expression.” Over-expression provided a means whereby public figures could both present themselves as celebrities to a general audience while at the same time obscuring certain details about their lives and “selves” that they wished to remain private. The method worked by focusing attention on a particularly striking or unusual aspect of self-presentation while at the same time distracting attention from, and indeed deliberately obscuring, the rest of the performer’s persona. Over-expression was paradoxically both remarkable and obfuscating; it comprises the “spectacular disappearances” that give the book both its title and its subject.

Fawcett sees Cibber as the progenitor of this strategy of over-expression. Cibber introduced seemingly eccentric, but nevertheless remarkable, forms of public performance, both on stage and in print, which drew attention to themselves but stopped short of offering their publics a means of truly understanding, or completely interpreting, their full meaning. Examples include Cibber’s outrageously large wig that he donned for performing the fop’s role in comedies such as Love’s Last Shift, or The Fool in Fashion (1696); his often deliberately misspelled [End Page 503] words or non-standard syntax in his printed sentences; or, perhaps most famously for students of eighteenth-century literature, Laurence Sterne’s black page in Tristram Shandy (1759–67). In Fawcett’s estimation, “these excesses work not to obscure the self, but rather to exaggerate and thus destabilize the language through which the self is thought to be revealed” (4). Cibber is key to this study of over-expression not only because he was “the first” to do so, but also because he combined theatrical and printed self-representation in ways that became increasingly common during the rest of the eighteenth century.

Cibber’s autobiography, An Apology for the Life of Colley Cibber (1740), was a “literary innovation” according to Fawcett; she calls it the “first secular autobiography published in England” (27). Although Cibber’s narrative is a significant text in the history of life writing, not all readers will agree with this claim. It certainly does not accord with the more capacious understanding of the autobiographical genre articulated in works such as Adam Smyth’s Autobiography in Early Modern England (2010). Nevertheless, Cibber’s was the first detailed autobiographical narrative written by a stage player, and, as such, the work is surely crucial for understanding the relationships between the stage, the page, and celebrity culture in the eighteenth century. Cibber’s Apology established the actor’s life as one worthy of attention from the reading public, and it is therefore no surprise that it and subsequent theatrical memoirs of eighteenth-century actors have played an important role in discussions of eighteenth-century celebrity. Fawcett’s work is no exception here, and she devotes much of the rest of her book to the autobiographical performances of famous actresses and actors, such as Cibber’s daughter Charlotte Charke, David Garrick, George Anne Bellamy, and Mary Robinson.

A notable addition to this list of Fawcett’s subjects is Laurence Sterne, who was neither an actor nor, strictly speaking, an autobiographer. Sterne nevertheless helps to frame Fawcett’s argument about the importance of over-expression for eighteenth-century celebrity self-fashioning. Sterne was a celebrity in the early years of George iii’s reign, and Sterne’s Tristram Shandy played with the conventions of the secular autobiography (as well as...